Chapter 11: The Long History of Digital Radio: Old Media in a New Century

Brian O’Neill

Radio is a medium that has changed relatively little over the course of its history. Originating within the suite of scientific discoveries that produced wired telephony and telecommunications in the late nineteenth century, wireless broadcasting seemed to emerge almost as a by-product but once established changed little in the century ahead. Technical enhancements to radio such as the introduction of FM and stereo broadcasting sought to improve the quality of a service whose parameters were firmly set within the paradigm of a twentieth century mass communications medium. The essential quality of radio thus defined, characterized by Scannell (2010) as its ‘listenability’, is as familiar now as the first rudimentary broadcasting experiments that led to the rise of the medium.

Digital radio, the contours of which were first delineated in the early 1980s, stands poised between incremental development of this basic configuration and a more profound and radical transformation of the medium. Proposed by Europe’s leading broadcasters and electronics manufacturers as the next-generation platform for radio broadcasting, a swift migration to a fully digital environment was envisaged to match equivalent developments in television, cable and satellite services. Rival technologies, a diversity of regulatory approaches, a fragmented market and the disruptive forces of convergence on the internet have created a ferment in the field in which competing concepts of ‘newness’ and opposing visions of the future shape and prospects for the medium collide. Digital radio’s credentials as new media are as a consequence uncertain and insecure.

This chapter examines the meaning of digital radio against this historical background. A twentieth century technology in a twenty first century context, digital radio represents the oldest of new media and yet remains an incomplete project. Negotiating its functionality between the listenability of radio as conventionally received and the sociability of interactive and participative forms of networked audio media, digital radio presents a canvas on which many of the unresolved tensions of digitalization can be read and better understood.